Representative John Conyers of Michigan was put back on the primary ballot by a federal judge Friday after the election authorities threw him off for lack of sufficient valid signatures on his nominating petitions. It is not yet clear if there will be an appeal.
Two observations regarding this fiasco.
The first is that this was an astonishing rookie mistake for a man who has been elected or reelected to the House 25 times. It suggests, at the least, that it is time for the 85-year-old Conyers to retire. If he can’t see to it that something so fundamental to electoral success as his nominating petitions are done properly, can he handle the duties of a congressman?
The second observation is that nominating petitions are a truly dumb method for determining who gets a place on the ballot. They are very expensive, as volunteers (or often paid personnel) have to get a certain number of signatures of registered voters, obeying no end of persnickety rules about the proper form of signature, name, and address. The rule of thumb is that you need at least twice, and preferably three times, the legally required number of signatures to be sure of having enough valid ones. In Conyers’s case he needed 1,000, so he should have had 3,000 signatures to turn in. The reason you need so many is that your opponents, once you have turned in the petitions, will unleash their political lawyers hoping to knock you off the ballot on a technicality. You, of course, have to hire your own lawyers to defend your petitions. It is all an enormous waste of time, money, and energy and a lawyer’s relief act.
The supposed purpose of nominating petitions is to make sure that only genuine, politically viable candidates get onto the ballot, not guys wearing Uncle Sam suits. That is a legitimate concern. But the actual purpose of the nominating petition process is to make it harder for political insurgents to challenge the political establishment, which has the resources (and lawyers) to deal with the system.
A far better, cheaper, fairer means of ensuring only serious candidates are on the ballot is the British system, which is also widely used in Commonwealth countries and in Japan. In Britain, a candidate standing for election to Parliament must deposit £500 (about $841) with the election authorities and he gets it back if he wins 5 percent or more of the votes. Some countries have much higher deposit requirements. In Japan, a candidate for the lower house of the Diet must deposit a whopping ¥3,000,000 (nearly $30,000) and win 10 percent of the vote to get it back.
What the proper deposit for various offices and the proper minimum vote needed to get a refund should be in this country is a matter for debate. But the nominating petition system is an embarrassment to American democracy.